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Too Soon to Tell

June 21st, 2013 / By

At Washington & Lee, as at most schools right now, we would prefer that our students were more successful in obtaining employment. But the 2012 employment figures, unfortunate as they are, say nothing about our our curricular reform. It is simply too early, . . . much too early.

The 2012 numbers refer to the first full class to pass through the reformed third year curriculum. Ours is a slow-to-change profession. Employers as a group do not change their settled practices on a dime. Nothing in the employment numbers that we see for the next 3 to five years should be seen as reflecting on the reception given to the curriculum reform. No curricular reform I know of, including Langdell’s, changed settled practices of others overnight.

We are confident in the reform and the value it adds to our students. The reform has become reasonably well-known within legal education, but we have considerable work yet to do to make it known and understood to the
employing-branch of the legal profession.

The education a W&L student receives today is more rigorous than was the education received by their predecessors. The first year, with added requirements of administrative law and transnational law and professional responsibility, continues to be taught with the techniques and materials that have made the first year a legal education success story. The second year, too, is largely unchanged in its methodology. But in the reformed third year, students are challenged in ways they are not challenged in the traditional third year. Students must study and adopt the analytical practices of sophisticated lawyers. They must write more than their predecessors in the traditional third year. They must problem solve more. They must work as teams. They must progress in the mastery of the complex mental processes of sophisticated lawyers. The data gathered by the Law Student Survey of Student Engagement shows that our third year students are more actively involved in their education than both their W&L predecessors and current students at our peer schools.

And, too, students in the new curriculum continue to learn law, but they learn it as lawyers do rather than as students do. In a course, for example, such as The Lawyer for Failing Businesses, the students learn bankruptcy and creditor law. But they learn it to solve a client’s problem or engage in other representation activities: they learn the law to use it instead of to pass a 3 hour exam on it. They begin to form the mental pathways of lawyers, who analyze and act on client needs by weighing a wide variety of factors beyond the law itself. Business interests, reputational interests, client risk-comfort levels and a wide variety of other factors weigh into that advice and work of sophisticated lawyers. Students in the reformed curriculum begin to develop those critical sensibilities.

I fully agree that it is incumbent on employers to “buy” what they have implored law schools to do to prepare students for the rigors of sophisticated practice. Time will tell. Employers’ behavior is long- entrenched and employers are being especially cautious due to the financial crisis, but eventually we remain confident that these reforms, adopted in the midst of the most turbulent market in legal services in modern history, will bear fruit for all constituencies. The employment success of the very first class through a curriculum reform comes far too early to launch speculation about its connections with the reform.

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